Friday marks a month since Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian strongman Vladimir Putin signed a declaration that there are “no limits” to their friendship. Pardon Mr. Xi if he’s already concluding that with friends like this he doesn’t need enemies.
Little about Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is going right for Beijing. One of the bigger disasters so far concerns the fate of Chinese citizens in Ukraine. Speculation is rampant over whether Mr. Putin warned his Chinese counterpart an invasion was imminent. Either way, Beijing didn’t evacuate its embassy or the Chinese citizens now struggling to escape Mr. Putin’s tanks and bombs.
This exacerbates Mr. Xi’s deeper diplomatic dilemma. Having positioned himself as Mr. Putin’s closest friend, the Chinese leader now is under immense pressure from the rest of the world to talk Mr. Putin out of the war. If he can’t do so, and signs so far aren’t encouraging, it will highlight the limits of last month’s strategic alignment.
The Ukraine war is exposing other limits to Chinese power. Beijing has refused to impose financial or other sanctions of the sort Western governments have placed on Russia. But Chinese companies may have no choice but to comply with the Western sanctions anyway. This is especially true of Chinese banks, which this week found they may need to cut off some business with Russian counterparties to maintain their access to the far more important dollar and euro financial systems.
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Outside of China, the Ukraine invasion appears to be triggering a marked change in attitudes toward security in Asia and Europe. In Japan, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the weekend became the most senior politician ever to call for Japan to host American nuclear weapons on its soil. Such a move remains in the future, but Beijing would prefer that Japan remain a staunch pacifist forever. It may be too late for that as the war in Ukraine focuses Asian minds on the security of Taiwan.
President Biden this week dispatched a delegation of former defense officials to Taiwan to demonstrate American support for the island, a major irritant for Beijing. One lesson the West should learn from events in Ukraine is the importance of selling defensive weapons early and often to endangered smaller partners. Mr. Xi’s pal in the Kremlin may trigger a new round of weapons sales to Taipei.
Singapore took the unusual step of imposing sanctions on Russia without a U.N. Security Council resolution in place—the first time the city-state has done so since the 1970s. Memo to Beijing: “It is all too easy for a small country to be caught up in the geopolitical games of big powers,” Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said. “Small countries must avoid becoming sacrificial pawns, vassal states or ‘cat’s paws’ to be used by one side against the other.”
In Europe Mr. Xi’s warm statement of friendship with Mr. Putin has left the Chinese leader in the crossfire as European leaders take aim at the Kremlin. The timing couldn’t be worse, as the Ukraine conflict now may dominate a China-European Union summit scheduled for April 1 that was supposed to make progress toward a stalled bilateral investment deal.
A full European diplomatic and commercial shift against China will take time, if it happens, but some effects already are being felt. The sanctions triggered by Mr. Putin’s warmongering threaten to halt traffic on the railway from China to Europe—a centerpiece of Beijing’s economic diplomacy with Eastern European countries such as Poland.
It’s common outside of China to assume that the Communist Party regime plays multidimensional chess while the rest of the world plays checkers. Perhaps not this time, where what was supposed to be a major strategic friendship is hurting Mr. Xi’s interests barely a month after the ink dried.